At first, Sebastopol area resident Nancy Martin and her husband did not know what to make of the frequent booming bird noises they suddenly started hearing in mid-August.
Neither did their neighbors.
“We were walking around the neighborhood and we’d run into people, and they’d say, ‘What’s that noise we’re hearing?’ ” Martin said. “And we would say, ‘I don’t know, maybe hunting.’ ”
But the sounds were going off at very frequent intervals — sometimes as much as 20 per minute — and could last for 13 hours a day, Martin estimated. So hunting-related gunshots didn’t sound quite right.
Then a neighbor emailed with the most likely answer: bird cannons. Vineyards employ the noise-making devices powered by propane to scare away birds that may seek to prey on their valuable crop as harvest approaches.
The use of bird cannons is nothing new, particularly in agriculture-heavy Sonoma County, but Martin, who said she has lived in her neighborhood for 30 years, could not recall ever hearing them before.
“Sometimes, it would be back to back: you’d hear ‘boom’ and then another ‘boom’ right away,” Martin said. “My dog seriously was just shaking.”
Concerns expressed by Martin and several other residents in west Sonoma County highlight a familiar tension in agricultural areas: Growers, empowered by the county’s right-to-farm ordinance, are entitled to protect their crops, but local residents sometimes feel farming disruptions interfere with their quality of life.
John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in the Russian River Valley, said his vineyard has not used bird cannons this year because it has not felt very dramatic “bird pressure.” But he knows how bad it can get in other years: Balletto recalled one instance some 15 years ago when he had a 2-acre block of pinot grigio “picked clean” by waxwings.
The damage can add up quickly. A typical vineyard in Sonoma County yields about 3 tons of grapes per acre, or a crop valued at about $7,650 per acre at last year’s average price, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Balletto acknowledged that complaints from neighbors can arise, and he recommended taking an equally neighborly approach to resolving those conflicts.
“If you have a neighbor that has some concerns, just go have a conversation with that person,” Balletto said. “We’re still able to farm and do stuff, but it’s also important to try to have good neighbor relations.”
Cannons are not the only tool vineyards have at their disposal to defend against birds like starlings and waxwings. One popular option is bird netting, which growers can place over their crops to shield them from winged pests, but that can be a costly and labor-intensive route to take. Balletto said his vineyard is using bird alarms, which emit noises of predatory birds, and has found them to be more effective than cannons so far.
Still others employ actual birds of prey — falcons — to scare off hungry flocks.
With Wine Country’s harvest season gearing up, Lisa Correia, Sonoma County’s assistant agricultural commissioner, said last week that her office had yet to receive any complaints about bird cannons. But she said the commissioner’s office generally works closely with residents and businesses to resolve such issues.